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Kiss the Frog: The Cosmopolitan Turn in Sociology

“Let us kiss the frog and then find out if the frog turns into a prince, one that begins to re-map the institutions of the cosmopolitan age.”

November 29, 2010

In his inspiring programmatic statement “Meeting the Challenges of Global Sociology” (Global Dialogue, Vol.1, No.1), Michael Burawoy remains ambiguous as to whether global sociology is just an additional perspective, a supplement to the conventional nation-state centred sociology. Or is it more than that: a substitute for the mainstream, that is to say a critical turn in sociological theory and research? The first line of argument I call ‘global sociology,’ the second one ‘cosmopolitan sociology’.

The collapse of a world order is the moment for reflection on the dominant social theory and research, but surprisingly this is not the case today. Mainstream social theory still floats loftily above the lowlands of epochal transformations (climate change, financial crisis, nation-states) in a condition of universalistic superiority and instinctive certainty. This universalistic social theory, whether structuralist, interactionist, Marxist, Critical or systems-theory, is now both out of date and provincial. Out of date because it excludes a priori what can be observed empirically: a fundamental transformation of society and politics within Modernity (from First to Second Modernity); provincial because it mistakenly absolutizes the trajectory, the historical experience and future expectation of Western, i.e. predominantly European or North American, modernization and, thereby, also fails to see its own particularity.

This is why we need not only a global sociology, but a cosmopolitan turn in social and political theory and research: How can social and political theory be opened up, theoretically, empirically as well as methodologically and normatively, to historically new, entangled Modernities which threaten their own foundations? How can it account for the fundamental fragility and mutability of societal dynamics (of unintended side-effects, domination and power), shaped, as they are, by the globalization of capital and risks at the beginning of the 21st century? What theoretical and methodological problems arise and how can they be addressed in empirical research? So what has to be done?

First, we have to call into question one of the most powerful convictions about society and politics, one which binds both social actors and social scientists: methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism equates modern society with society organised in territorially limited nation-states. Second, we have to ask and answer the question: how to research the global? And third: what does a ‘Cosmopolitan Vision’ imply for the Social Sciences and Humanities at the beginning of the 21st century?

1. Critique of methodological nationalism

In brief: Methodological nationalism assumes that the nation, state and society are the ‘natural’ social and political forms of the modern world. Where social actors subscribe to this belief I talk of a ‘national outlook’; where it determines the perspective of the social scientific observer, I talk of ‘methodological nationalism’. The distinction between the perspective of the social actor and that of the social scientist is crucial, because there is only a historical connection between the two, not a logical one. This historical connection – between social actors and social scientists – alone gives rise to the axiomatics of methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism is neither a superficial problem nor minor error. It involves routine data collection and production as well as the basic concepts of modern sociology and political science, concepts such as society, social class, state, family, democracy, international relations etc.

Moreover, sociologists tended to generalize from ‘their’ particular society to a claim about how ‘society’ in general is organized. (This also holds for my own book Risk Society [1986]). American sociology, in particular, developed in this way, presuming that all societies were more or less like the USA, just poorer! It was perfectly acceptable to study that particular society and then to generalize as though all, or at least most, other societies (at least those that mattered!) were much the same. This led to debates about the general nature of order or of conflict within ‘society’ based upon the distinct US pattern. Order and conflict theories were to be ‘tested’ within the USA and it was presumed that these conclusions could then be generalized to all societies or at least to all rich industrial societies. For decades it was simply how sociology worked; it was a taken-for-granted way of doing sociology. But then ‘global studies’ marched in.

2. How to research the global?

We do not live in an age of cosmopolitanism but in an age of cosmopolitization We can distinguish three phases in the way the word ‘globalization’ has been used in the social sciences: first, denial, second, conceptual refinement and empirical research, third, ‘cosmopolitization’. The initial denial is over because the theoretical and empirical refinement revealed a new social landscape in the making (see, for example, Held et al., Global Transformations). Its dominant features include interconnectedness, which means dependency and interdependency of people across the globe. Virtually the entire span of human experiences and practices is in one way or another influenced by the overwhelming interconnectivity of the world. (This should not be confused with world system and dependency theories.)

The third phase uncovers the core unseen, unwanted consequence of this global interconnectivity: really existing cosmopolitization – the end of the ‘global other’. The global other is here in our midst. This is precisely the point: to clearly distinguish between philosophical cosmopolitanism and social scientific cosmopolitization.

Cosmopolitanism in Immanuel Kant’s philosophical sense means something active, a task, a conscious and voluntary choice, clearly the affair of an elite, a top-down perspective. But today in reality a ‘banal’, ‘coercive’ and ‘impure’ cosmopolitization unfolds unwanted, unseen -- powerful and confrontational beneath the surface, or behind the façade of persisting national spaces, jurisdictions and labels. It extends from the top of the society down to everyday life in families, work situations and individual biographies – even as national flags continue to be raised and even as national attitudes, identities and consciousness are strongly being reaffirmed. Banal cosmopolitization is, for example, seen in the huge array of foodstuff and cuisines routinely available in most towns and cities across the world. It is possible with enough money to ‘eat the world’. What others have viewed as a ‘postmodern eclecticism’ I see not against the modern but as rather a new reflexivity about what modernity is. Thus, cuisines, global risk, art and global cultural conflicts (for example, about the Danish Mohammed cartoons), are assembled, compared, juxtaposed, and reassembled out of diverse components from multiple countries around the world. So the new volcanic landscapes of ‘societies’ and their radicalized social inequalities have to be re-mapped on the macro level as well as on the micro level, and projected horizontally through communication, interaction, work, economy, and, indeed, all such social and political practices.

As Chang Kyung-Sup has written, like climate change, most of the main impetuses for social and economic transformations in the new century do not differentially or exclusively apply to certain limited groups of nations. Consider the following: global free trade and financialization, corporate deterritorialization and transnationalized production, globalized labor use, competition and class conflicts, globalized policy consulting and formulation (coerced by the IMF, etc.), internet communication and cyberspace, globally orchestrated bioscientific manipulation of life forms (gradually including human bodies), global risks of all kinds (financial crisis, terrorism, AIDS, swine flu, SARS), transnational demographic realignments (the migration of labor, spouses, and children), cosmopolitized arts and entertainments, and, last but not least, globally financed and managed regional wars. There are no permanent systematic hierarchies, sequences or selectivities by which different groups of nations – whether at different levels of development, in different regions or of different ethnicities and religions – are exposed to these new civilizational forces in mutually exclusive ways. Desired or not, they are every nation’s and every person’s concern because they are structurally enmeshed with the new civilizational process which I call ‘reflexive cosmopolitization’; and the civilizational condition thereby shared across the globe is a ‘reflexive’ or ‘second’ modernity.

The recent world history seems to dictate that surviving, let alone benefiting from, these new civilizational forces require every nation to actively internalize them and one another. The sociological implication is simple: the global other is in our midst! Isolationist efforts – whether spoken in terms of trade protectionism, religious fundamentalism, national fundamentalism, media and internet control or whatever else – are readily subjected to international moral condemnations (and, to some extent, ineffective). In fact, accepting or refusing these forces remains beyond willful political or social choices because they are globally reflexive – that is, compulsively occurring through the ‘cosmopolitan imperative: cooperate or fail!


3. A ‘cosmopolitan vision’ for the social sciences

It is a paradox that the very lively debates on cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitization are overwhelmingly Euro-American. They are about globalization, and about risks, rights, and responsibilities in an interconnected world, but they reflect disproportionately views from the old ‘core’ of the modern world system (and Western-educated elites from formerly colonial outposts). This is the source of at least four biases.

First, though an effort is made to include consideration of poor, developing, or emerging economies cosmopolitan theories reflect the perspective of the rich. Second, though an effort is made to be multicultural, cosmopolitan theories are rooted in the West. Third, cosmopolitan theories try to escape cultural bias by imagining an escape from culture into a realm of the universal (as though those who travel aren’t still shaped by their previous cultural contexts and as though such global circuits themselves don’t provide new cultural contexts). Fourth, as Craig Calhoun has written, despite attention to social problems, because cosmopolitan theories are rooted in the (declining) core of the modern world system, they tend to imagine the world as more systematically and uniformly interconnected than it is. Those biases are exactly what cosmopolitan sociology has to overcome.

Let me end by summarizing in seven theses what the cosmopolitan turn entails:

1. An earlier phase of modernity was organized primarily in terms of nation-states, which sought to manage many of the risks people faced, although markets and other phenomena did cross state boundaries.

2. Modern social and political theory grew with the dominance of nation-states and internalized the nation-state as the tacit model for the ideal-as-society – influenced by the actual power of nation-states but also by the widespread aspiration to organize the world on the basis of nation-states.

3. An earlier philosophical cosmopolitanism developed in this context, calling on people ethically to transcend narrow nationalist views, as though the sociological conditions of their lives did not really matter.

4. Consider global free trade and financialization, corporate deterritorialization and transnationalized production, globalized labour use, internet communication, globally orchestrated bioscientific manipulation of life forms and, last but not least, globally financed and managed regional wars. Recent world history seems to dictate that surviving, let alone benefiting from, these new civilizational forces requires every nation to actively internalize them and one another. This is what I call ‘(Reflexive) Cosmopolitization’; and the civilizational condition shared across the globe is called ‘Reflexive’ or ‘Second’ Modernity’

5. I do not see the nation-state as disappearing. I see it as only one of many actors in a global power game. The focus needs to be on that global power game and not on the nation-state.

6. Such a shift in focus requires the restructuring of the social sciences not only conceptually, theoretically, and methodologically but also in the very organization of research. All their fundamental concepts – especially the nation-state – need to be re-examined. Many are ‘zombie concepts’ that continue to live on even though the world that they related to at one time no longer exists.

7. Cosmopolitan sociology not only involves a fundamental reorganization of the social sciences, and a dramatic shift in focus – from methodological nationalism to methodological cosmopolitanism – but it must also be critical in its orientation. One critical focus must be on the increasing inequality in the world. The focus on the nation-state has led to a shameful subordination of ‘objective’ and ‘value-free’ sociology to the imperatives of the nation-state which blinds even empirical sociology to the fundamental transnational transformations of domination and inequality.

There are risks as well as opportunities in the cosmopolitan turn, but for now let us kiss the frog and then find out if the frog turns into a prince – one that begins to re-map the scapes, flows, new lines of conflict, actors and institutions of the cosmopolitan age. After all, kissing doesn’t hurt anybody, does it?

For the debate on cosmopolitan sociology see Ulrich Beck/Edgar Grande (eds): Varieties of Second Modernity: Extra European and European Experiences and Perspectives, British Journal of Sociology 61(3), 2010; and Soziale Welt 61 (3/4), 2010.

Ulrich Beck, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, Germany

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